Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Kanheri Caves in the Borivali National Park

Sometime ago I had a couchsurfer over and I was wondering how to entertain her. Suddenly it occurred to me that I was due a visit to the Kanheri Caves in the Borivali National Park and it would be a great idea to time it during Jo’s stay with me.

Jo is a Jamaican of Indian origin who was brought up in Toronto, Canada and now lives in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Such an interesting history. She is a wonderful girl, very soft spoken, easy to be with, quite accommodating, ever willing to go with the flow and try new things. So when I discussed Kanheri Caves with her, she was keen to go.

It is best to go as early as you can before the hordes of tourists and local Indians descend on the caves. Also it is much cooler in the morning and you can take beautiful pictures. And try and go there on a weekday so that you get the place to yourself.

Kanheri Caves is a popular destination for school picnics. However, I doubt many people living in Bombay actually are aware or appreciate having these historic caves in their backyard. I found them fascinating and I must admit that I felt like kicking myself for not having visited earlier and more often.

The caves are situated deep inside the Borivali National Park. They date back to the 1st century BC. There are about 109 caves carved from basalt rock. Kanheri was an important Buddhist settlement on the Konkan coast by the 3rd century AD. There are quite a few caves which are quite spartan and unadorned which I believe were living quarters for the monks. But there is a huge congregational hall with stone pillars and a stupa (Buddhist shrine). There are beautiful reliefs of the Buddha and his disciples all over.

They say Kanheri was a university centre in the times of the Mauryan and Kushan empires. It connected with many trade centres and ports. Most of the caves were used as Buddhist viharas meant for meditating, studying and living.

We got there by about 10 am and had the place pretty much to ourselves. I was pleased as I could take many pictures with no people in the background. At the ticket office, Jo passed off as an Indian from Kerala. Her Indian blood came to some use after all. We spent an hour walking around, peeking into the caves and discovering the ancient water systems. From the very top of the hill you could see the golden dome of the Vipassana centre at Gorai. The view of the greenery of the national park and then the dense skyline of the suburbs of Bombay brought home the paradox of the city we live in. Truly we need more green spaces to ease the pollution in our overcrowded city.

We then decided to try the “Tiger and Lion safari” in another part of the National park. As we were leaving the caves area, we saw buses of tourists drive in. Boy, were we glad to have had the place to ourselves before the swarming masses drove in.

The safari was a joke. We were asked to wait till there were 25 people enrolled. Luckily we didn’t have to wait for long. We were huddled into a mini bus with grills outside the windows. I was concerned that we would not see the big cats as it was too hot but the guide calmly told me that we would definitely see them as this was the first bus trip of the day. I soon realized why and felt like a complete fool. First stop, the bus halted outside a building with a grill door. We were asked to look out for the lions. I was wondering how could there be lions near a building. Silly me! Suddenly we heard a lot of roaring making me wonder if someone had prodded the lions with a stick or something. Then the grill door was raised and a poor lion walked out. He looked at us and then quite calmly turned his back on us as if to say “Get lost. I am the King of the Jungle and you are but minions in my kingdom”. He then proceeded to rub his back against the bark of a tree and then answered nature’s call. He refused to turn towards us so we had no choice but to move on. We then passed some deer and later we stopped outside another enclosure where there was a white tiger basking in the sun and in another enclosure a yellow tiger hiding amongst the grass. They were too far to see clearly or take any pictures.

I felt sad for these majestic animals as they should be left to live in their natural habitat. They definitely do not deserve to be gawked at by tourists in a grilled bus! I felt cheated as an individual as the entire experience was quite pathetic. Nevertheless, the National Park and the Kanheri caves are a true treasure which every person in Bombay must cherish.

Friday, November 2, 2012

There is always a first time for everything

There is always a first time for everything. Last evening was my first tango session. It had been on my bucket list for a while, so finally I pulled myself together, got some friends interested and off we went to the milonga at Balthazar.

The “first time” is always made up of a bit of nervousness, tension, excitement, anticipation and expectation. So with a bundle of nerves and butterflies in my stomach, I drove to Balthazar.

As I was driving, I thought of some other memorable “first times”. The first time I watched a cricket match, I was mesmerized by the electric atmosphere of the stadium with the thousands of screaming fans. Though not a lover of cricket, I will forever after jump at the chance of going for another cricket match.

The first time I flew in a helicopter was equally memorable. Bombay looked so beautiful from the air that one quite forgot the squalor, filth and chaos on ground. The pink flamingoes on the mudflats at Sewri and the fishing boats at Colaba made for a pretty picture. Despite the electronic chatter from the radio conversation between pilot and air traffic control and the general noise from the rotor, I felt calm looking at my beautiful city from above.

I have been on many airplanes but to jump out of one at 12000 ft was madness. The first time I skydived, I was numb. It took a lot of courage to go through with it considering that I had a fear of heights. The long wait for my turn was unbearable and nerve racking but once we were kitted up, briefed, photographed, interviewed and boarded on the tiny plane, there was no time to think or agonize. Before I knew it, I was jumping out of the plane strapped to my instructor who kept whispering into my ear to breathe and stay calm. His reassuring words were what kept me sane. My first reaction on jumping from the plane was “gosh, I am going to hit the wing” and later “wow, I am actually floating through the air” and finally “this is so awesome”. Once the parachute was inflated, it was heaven. I felt like a bird, someone disconnected from earth, observing the beauty of the lakes around Roturua – a truly spectacular location to choose to skydive. I was intoxicated from the experience for the next 3 months.

My first hot air balloon ride, recently concluded in Cappadocia, is still fresh in my mind. The peace one experiences floating above the earth in the stillness of the dawn is a personal memory that is special. Once again the unique landscape with its volcanic rock formations and pinnacles added to the surrealism of the experience. You are forgiven if you believe that you have landed on the moon. At some point I was a bit nervous thinking about crashing into one of those pinnacles which looked sharp as needles. Thankfully we floated away for an hour before we safely landed in on a grassy field and popped the bubbly to celebrate.

I still remember the first time I had sashimi. I could not bring myself to eat the raw fish. My mind was blocking my senses. And adding fuel to the fire was the dollop of wasabi that I swallowed! Now, sashimi and sushi are my preferred cuisine. What a long way I have journeyed, from looking at sashimi as a slimy sliver of fish and being repulsed to the present where I savour the freshness of the flesh and enjoy the texture of unadulterated taste enhanced by the wasabi and soy.

I also remember very vividly my first time at the Formula One Race. I had won a prize for two to view the Sepang race in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My brother was the lucky one who got to accompany me. However my boss heard I was there and invited us to the Paddock Club to cheer his team. The Paddock club in itself was an experience with abundant exotic food and drink continuously flowing as well as entertainment like spas, caricature artists and visits to the pit lane, garages and meetings with the drivers. Observing the pit stop and the precision team work was a lesson in management. From having no interest in Formula One, I was hooked with the entire experience. Since, then I am a keen follower of the races and in particular our team.

So as I drove to Balthazar, I felt a bit reassured with my memories of the various “first times” in my life and my butterflies calmed down a bit allowing me to get there with a positive frame of mind.